SING STREET, Ireland, 2016. Starring Ferdia Walsh Peelo, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jack Reynor, Lucy Boynton, Kelly Thornton, Ben Carolan, Mark McKenna, Percy Chamburuka, Ian Kenny, Don Wycherley. Directed by John Carney. 106 minutes. Rated M (coarse language).
Audiences will find this a generally cheerful film, a story about five young adolescents and their desire to make music. The setting is the 1980s and there are plenty of songs from the popular groups of that period and a number of new songs – in the vein of those times. The writer-director of Sing Street, John Carney, aspired to be a musician when he was young. He then played in a band and once he became a film director, also concentrated on films with music and song, the very popular Once (which became an award-winning theatre piece) and Begin Again. It would not be surprising to find Sing Street on theatre stages in years to come.
John Carney is Irish which gives a particular flavour to the film. In his screenplay, he is reminiscing about his times at Catholic school in the mid-1980s, at a Christian Brothers school. It is easy to see that there were many aspects of the school that he did not like and had a very dim view of the Brother Principal of the school who becomes a target of his dislike, his satire, and his culminating song and demonstration in protest against the Brother.
Times were difficult in Ireland. the opening focuses on how many people, young and old, were leaving Ireland, especially for the UK. Conor (Ferdia Walsh Peelo) has been at a Jesuit high school but his father is out of work, times are hard, and Conor has to go to the local Christian Brothers’ high School. Almost immediately, the humourless and rather heartless Principal demands that Conor wear black shoes (which his family can’t afford). The principal reads the letter of the law, the hundred plus pages of regulations, insisting on complete obedience to rules. Later, when Conor wear some make up like members of the bands of the time, he demands the removal, using physical violence against Conor.
Catholic audiences will be more than a bit sensitive to this presentation of the Brothers – while most audiences will take the severity for granted.
So, audiences can concentrate on Conor, his infatuation with a girl who lives in an institutional house near the school, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), deciding to form a band so that she can appear in music videos. He does form a band, a cheeky young boy at school promoting himself as a fixer and as a manager. They do make several music videos. And there is a sympathetic boy who is a master of many musical instruments with a talent for composition and improvisation. They go for multicultural with an African-Irish young boy, also a good musician, and two other young lads who read the advertisement and more than fulfil the requirements.
Lots of rehearsal scenes, plenty of verve in the playing, Conor deciding that he will be the lead singer, writing the lyrics, testing out his songs with Raphina, and with a collage of the styles of so many of the popular bands, the variety of clothes, hairstyles, make up, that the boys take on.
Conor’s family background is also played well, with Aidan Gillett and Maria Doyle Kennedy as his squabbling parents, and Jack Raynor, very sympathetic, as his stoner brother who has opted out of life despite his expensive Jesuit education.
There are two climactic sequences, one in Conor’s imagination, the other at the final school dance. In the former, everybody is there, the band playing, everyone dancing, his parents happy, Raphina coming in, and even the Brother Principal full of zest doing cartwheels across the floor. However, while the final gig is very successful for Conor and his band, he does have a plan to confront the Brother, attack and humiliate him with everybody wearing masks of his face and singing some pungent lyrics criticising him.
What is left for Conor and Raphina but for Conor to commandeer his grandfather’s speedboat and take to the high seas for a future in Britain? It seems more than a bit far-fetched, but it is based on John Carney story and his success.
Roadshow Released July 14th.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.